From One House to Another
Whether he’s at home in Greenwich or at his office in D.C., Congressman Jim Himes shows he’s a quick study in navigating tumultuous political waters
photograph by visko hatfield
It was a setup date and it did not start off right. Don Carlson, a Goldman Sachs banker, and his wife Sue had hoped to put together two couples at a nice dinner at a fashionable Manhattan boîte. Blind dates, if you will. But Carlson’s buddy from work was running late. By the time Jim Himes showed up, the girl he was intended to meet was seated on the inside, so Himes sat next to the other guy’s date. She was a tall, slender girl named Mary. Their conversation was polite to begin with, but then it got heated.
Mary Scott was a student at Parsons The New School for Design. Himes had lived around the world, in South America and in England, and could talk some architecture. He liked traditional design. She liked modern. They got on the subject of Bauhaus, the austere, German design school. She loved it. He hated it. The Bauhaus discussion grew into an argument. He could see she had her own mind, and that it was sharp. By dessert, he was beginning to lose sight of the girl he was supposed to be dating.
The next morning he walked into work and told Carlson that he had just met the girl he was going to marry.
Mary Scott Himes can look back with an indulgent smile. “It took me a little while longer to know that,” she says. Yet, in a little more than a year they were married. And things are holding fast, a decade and a half later, even with the challenges of two kids and Jim’s new career as Congressman Himes, D-CT, the guy always on the run to and from Washington, D.C.
Mary leads the way into the living room of their Greenwich home. It was mostly traditional with a hint of modern. Such warm design and tastefulness should be expected, though. Until recently her career was styling grand houses for magazine photo shoots, most recently for athome Magazine, a sister to this publication. When she tackled this house for a personal redesign, it hadn’t been touched since 1956.
In a sunny sitting room off to the side, two young daughters, Emma and Linley, went through piles of art projects. It was a clear, cold day and the winter sun poured through the tall windows. The river below was bright and sparkly. At river’s edge, a tiny dock jutted into the water. Parked against the house were their beloved kayaks. “Sometimes the river will freeze enough for us to skate on it,” she says, looking down.
Easy access to exercise would be critical for two people thrown into a whirlpool of breakneck activity. Fractious town-hall debates on health care? Got that. Convoluted Wall Street reforms? Got it right here. Nerve-frying trips to Afghanistan? Coming right up. Endless political breakfasts? That’s where he was at the moment.
His new life has been made easier by the high-speed Acela train, which he can catch at the Stamford station, fifteen minutes from the house. Four hours later, he can walk from Washington’s Union Station to his office.
But perhaps what really makes it work is that they match up well, Jim and Mary. “I’m independent,” she offers, ever the can-do Canadian girl, the daughter of a professor in Montreal, “and I don’t need a lot of pampering.” Still, she decided to quit work, aside from the occasional blog post for the Greenwich Time and volunteer work for various community arts groups, such as the Cultural Alliance of Fairfield County. Right now she wants to watch over the girls and be part of this new life.
Jim flies in the door. A lean six-footer in a red sweater and khakis. In contrast to Mary’s elegant reserve, he was more open and instantly engaging, with a ready smile and laugh. He definitely hasn’t acquired that patented rounded-and-bloodshot Congressional physique, from years of rubber-chicken dinners. Eschewing martinis, Himes is more inclined to take a four-mile run from his office down to the Lincoln Memorial.
Himes’s friends readily talk about his stamina and readiness to take on any raging river in his kayak. And there are plenty of stories about the night, for instance, that he got caught in the New York power blackout. His response was to set out from Wall Street and walk home, through the darkened Bronx, all the way to Greenwich, wearing out a pair of shoes on his dogged way.
As we settled down with steaming mugs of strong coffee, I asked Himes for his version of the blind-date story. Just how did he know it was her? He responded instantly, as if this were a burning issue of state. “At some point when you’re young and you’ve dated a lot of people, you just develop an intuition,” he says, grinning unabashedly. “Her style, the way she presents herself and spoke.”
He looks at her. “The remarkable thing is when it lasts. We met fifteen years ago and the resonance lasts. We were, what, twenty-eight when we married? You get to be six different people before you’re forty.”
Now he is forty-three, and the different person he gets to be this year is the first Democrat to hold the state’s Fourth District in four decades. Whereas his immediate predecessor, Christopher Shays, was a Republican who appealed to a lot of Democrats, Himes talks up his pro-business bona fides in hopes of being the Democrat who Republicans will appreciate.
In today’s starkly divided political climate that might not be so easy. Only seven months after taking office in 2009, he was hosting some tumultuous town-hall debates on health care, and the lions were ravenous. For many voters, it was the first real look at the new congressman. If he had mike fright, it didn’t show. His approach on those nights was not dissimilar to Shays’s style—he worked at being fair-minded, even while facing some bared teeth.
“I tend to think in terms of my constituents, right? Here I am in Fairfield County, Connecticut. What happens when somebody who is red-faced and wearing an Obama-is-Hitler button comes up to me and screams and hollers? It happened to me three times in August. I suppose I could have screamed and hollered back, but, given the nature of this constituency, I’m just going to listen, and then I’ll respond calmly and rationally.”
Mary takes on a frank look: “I thought, if that were me up there, I’d be screaming back and getting emotional about it.” She glances over at him. “I was impressed at how you kept your calm.
“There were some people outside who were rowdy. It was scary to see him surrounded by six police officers and this angry crowd. I decided not to go to the next one, because I just didn’t want to see that again. To feel so scared for my husband—that someone would hurt him.”
Jim shakes his head. “Norwalk was the most raucous. There was a crew that was just there to disrupt. I’m pretty unassuming. I don’t get in people’s faces. I defuse an argument. In small groups I can usually take the temperature down. In Norwalk there were 1,200 people—no one’s controlling a crowd like that. And there were moments.
“The craziest thing that happened was something that cast the disrupters in a very bad light. It’s on YouTube. A guy had been sitting in the front row screaming his head off. At one point he was interrupting a woman and I said, ‘Sir, if you can’t stop screaming, I’m going to have to ask the police to ask you to leave.’ Well, he went crazy. He jumped up and grabbed the microphone from this woman who happened to be a cancer patient and was going through chemotherapy. And this guy runs up to her in wild-eyed rage. That was a very uncomfortable moment.”
He shifts uncomfortably on the sofa. “I want to be careful how I say this, because I welcome the debate. But when it gets to that point—that’s way out of bounds.” He grows thoughtful. “I actually take no interest in the warfare side of politics. I was a negotiator at the bank—I did M&A. My natural interest is, What is our shared interest and how do we get something done?’”
But what about the people who say that health-care reform will bankrupt the country? “My response,” he says evenly, “is that the status quo is bankrupting the country. The reality is that the spiraling costs of health care and the economic costs of people without insurance—setting aside for a second the moral costs— are a huge drag on the American economy. It will bankrupt businesses large and small, states and municipalities.
“The CBO [Congressional Budget Office] has said that the House and Senate bills would reduce the deficit. The CBO is a nonpartisan organization. The people who speculate that health-care reform will bankrupt the country have to address the fact that the status quo will do so, and that the CBO is saying a very different thing.”
FROM LIMA TO LAWRENCEVILLE
His instinct to be a sober, conciliating force might well come out of his childhood experiences. He was born in Lima, Peru, the son of a Ford Foundation executive, and was raised in Bogotá, Colombia, until he was twelve. When his parents divorced, his mother brought him and two younger sisters back to the States. Once here, he was astonished at the prosperity, if not the unimaginable safety. There were no police guards on the school bus.
“You look at his record,” says his longtime friend Carlson, “with his degrees from Harvard and Oxford, being on the crew team, and you’d think he was from an elitist background. But he’s really just a regular guy from a struggling middle-class home in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, raised by a working mom. “And let me tell you,” Carlson adds, “nobody got off the hook in Judy Himes’s house. She was a paralegal who put herself through law school. At the dinner table, you had to be ready to discuss things. And at twelve, Jim became the man of the house.”
Himes’s knowledge of Latin America and telecommunications earned him a ready berth in the Goldman Sachs brain trust. He later moved into mergers and acquisitions. Then, on that September morning eight years ago, his and every other American life changed. As he recounts the events, his normal animated manner shifts and his eyes grow large.
“On 9/11, I was actually in the subway underneath the World Trade Center when the second plane hit. They stopped the subway. I walked out of the station to Broadway, and I’ll never forget it. From my angle I could see the fire burning in one building, and I walked a little north and I saw the second tower burning. It was like having a heart attack.
“So I went down to the office and we were facing the World Trade Center but were watching it on this TV in the corner. When the buildings fell we were on Broad Street, three or four blocks away, and we were enveloped in that huge cloud.”
Carlson was standing next to him at that moment. While he wanted to rush home, Himes, who had trained as an emergency medical technician, wanted to help. He spent the rest of the day gathering medical equipment and getting it down to the aid stations at the Staten Island ferry terminal.
“That day is when Jim knew that his days at Goldman Sachs were numbered, that his life needed to change,” Carlson says. Himes doesn’t disagree. “It was a pretty emotional and very profound experience,” he says, blinking with some emotion. “It was many months before I felt centered again.”
As is asked of many who’ve emerged from the banking industry, the question is put to him: Did you feel during your Wall Street days that the game was built on risky rules?
“I’d like to be able to say that,” he says with a laugh, “but I didn’t predict this thing. I left Wall Street in 2002 and the crisis happened six years later. When I was on Wall Street, I saw two things that were maybe predictive of where it wound up. One was incredible growth. While
I was there my firm went from 4,000 employees to 23,000 employees. And second, I saw clear conflict of interest—the use of research analysts who were purportedly objective as a marketing tool for banking interests. A clear conflict of interests. There are other conflicts
of interests embedded in the big banks. Banks will sell a security in November and short it in January.”
This background made him well-suited to get cracking on banking reform in his first term. But if the polls say anything now, it’s that many Americans believe reform hasn’t happened fast enough. After Democrat Martha Coakley lost in the now-famous Massachusetts Senate race, she first muttered that she was paying for the slow-moving banking reforms.
Hearing this, Himes just exhales in disgust. “Look, my side of the Hill worked very hard on reform, held dozens of hearings and got a bill passed by November. The Senate is designed to move slowly and, lo and behold, they’re moving slowly. I generally think that’s a good thing; it introduces reflection and prudence into our legislation. But we’re racing the clock in financial services because the party has started again, and people are already taking on the kinds of risks that leave the industry and the economy low.
“Derivatives are just a small part of the problem, and they’re incredibly complicated, so this was never going to get done in a short period of time.
“Sure, everybody and his brother is out there with their single explanation about what happened in Massachusetts. Some say it’s a plebiscite on health care. But every election is a complicated thing. What’s undeniable is that American people everywhere are anxious about the economy and what they perceive to be Washington’s failure to address it.”
The latest round of town-hall debates have actually been about Afghanistan. What happens if we just leave the country?
“If we leave, over time we save a lot of money. Because we’re spending $100 billion a year there. We’d save the tragedy of the young lives that are being lost over there. But we will also risk chaos in the country that birthed 9/11. And we would take ourselves from sitting between Iran and Pakistan, which in my opinion are two of the most urgent national security issues we face.”
While his Fairfield County constituents are relatively split on the Afghanistan operation, there is, of course, some quiet gratitude in nations like Saudi Arabia and China that the U.S. is doing a job they don’t really want to do. Is there any hope some of these friends will help pay for the war? “That’s critical,” he replies emphatically. “There’s no dispute that the United States is bearing the cost of what is a world fight against extremism.
“I’ll tell you what makes me angry. Probably one of the most meaningful things I’ve done in the last year is go to the armory in Hartford to say goodbye to 700 National Guards, the largest deployment ever out of Connecticut. And NATO’s additional contribution is to be 7,000 troops—their net contribution is zero, by the way, because a number of NATO countries are withdrawing troops. And that’s just not right.”
THE CRAZY IDEA
When Himes departed Goldman Sachs, he went to the Enterprise Foundation, where he put his mind to raising funds for low-income housing. He swiftly rose to vice president, but wondered if it was time to do something more. His only civic experience was at the local level—he was a member of the Greenwich Board of Estimate and Taxation and served as the Chairman of the Greenwich Democratic Town Committee. He huddled with two of his closest friends, Dan Malloy and Richard Blumenthal. All three had their ambitions: Malloy has departed Stamford’s mayoralty for a run at Governor, Attorney General Blumenthal is preparing to run for Christopher Dodd’s Senate seat.
“When this was all just a crazy idea, the first person I talked with was Mary, and the second person was Dick Blumenthal. He’s always been very honest. We had breakfast at the Glory Days Diner and I said, ‘I’m willing to do something that’s hard; I’m not willing to do something that’s impossible.’”
As events conspired, Himes’s victory over Shays (by a margin of 51.4–47.4 percent) was spurred along by what Alex Knopp, former Norwalk mayor, called the “Obama tsunami,” which brought into the Democrat’s column a tidy number of votes from Bridgeport.
Assisting Himes as he navigates the fierce waters is a staff of fourteen (seven work in Washington, three in Stamford and four in Bridgeport) who help him answer the 3,000 letters that pour in every week, most from people who expect an answer in the return mail. His new salary is $170,000 and there is no extra housing allowance, meaning the family stays put while he commutes.
“I have an apartment just two blocks from the office. We have stayed there as a family, but it’s kind of crowded.” He laughed. “Imagine a frat house twenty years later. It’s shared with a bunch of guys. One guy works for the Department of Homeland Security, another guy works for Amtrak, so it’s not that family friendly.”
Newcomers to Congress are put on a buddy system, and Mary was taken under the wing of Lisa McGovern, wife of Representative Jim McGovern, D-MA, who showered her with advice on what to wear, and when to take the kids.
The Himeses first met Mr. Obama a couple of years ago and found him easy to hang with. “It’s weird,” Jim says smiling, “having a President who is only five years older than me.”
“Michelle is so lovely and easy to talk to,” Mary says. “And not scary, as I had imagined her being as First Lady. You can talk to her about shoes or policy or whatever.”
While it would seem to be an enormous change in one’s life, Himes just shrugged, as if to say it’s not been that difficult. And for a guy who has worked for years at a powerhouse bank, maybe it wouldn’t be such a tough shift. “This has been a learn-by-doing thing,” he said. “I wasn’t a legislator before doing this. People ask me if it’s what I expected, but I don’t know what I expected. I didn’t have any sort of analogy.
“We’re doing pretty well with me being gone four or five days a week. It’s obviously enormously exciting for me when I’m down there. The hardest part is missing the family and the girls.
“It’s either true or a rationalization or both but I tell myself that they’re getting a pretty unique look at civic life. They feel engaged with public life in a way that most kids don’t.”
He calls his kids on Video G Chat, the web-based picture telephone. He is, of course, part of the young and wired generation, and sends out dispatches on Twitter via his handle, @jahimes. “I don’t do policy in forty characters,” he says, “just the funny stuff that’s happening.”
Once at home, he likes listening to the blues or watching reruns of The West Wing and catching up with Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. But Mary points out that they don’t watch a lot of TV. “We try to use whatever free time we have outdoors. We take the kids up to the woods, down to the beach. Try to get outside.” He has taken up clamming.
It would seem to be an altogether doable life. Mary acts like it might even be an agreeable life. “But we’re only a year into it,” she says. “You know, there are already five Republicans lined up for the seat in November.”